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Lewiston shootings changed mindsets, and just enough votes on gun bills

FILE - Handguns are displayed at a pawn shop Monday, July 18, 2022, in Auburn, Maine. A government study released on Thursday, March 30, 2023, highlights just how violent America's recent past has been by showing a surge in gunfire injuries during the COVID-19 pandemic, when the number of people fatally shooting each other — and themselves -- also increased.
Robert F. Bukaty
FILE - Handguns are displayed at a pawn shop Monday, July 18, 2022, in Auburn, Maine. A government study released on Thursday, March 30, 2023, highlights just how violent America's recent past has been by showing a surge in gunfire injuries during the COVID-19 pandemic, when the number of people fatally shooting each other — and themselves -- also increased.

Maine has long been challenging terrain for gun control advocates because of the state's hunting heritage and deep-seated gun culture.

But in the final hours of this year's legislative session, the Democratic-controlled House and Senate passed a suite of bills that, taken together, amount to the most ambitious policy changes in gun-friendly Maine in decades. Attention is now turning to Gov. Janet Mills, a moderate Democrat on guns who has yet to say where she stands on several of the measures.

One billintroduced by Mills will require background checks on private gun sales that are advertised online or in print. Lawmakers also voted to ban rapid-fire gun modifications, such as bump stocks, and to impose a 72-hour waiting periodon gun sales.

After years of frustrating losses, some supporters of stronger gun laws are interpreting the victories as a sign that gun politics have changed in Maine since the Lewiston mass shootings.

"I think I counted up six gun-related bills and I believe we are on track to get four of them, so I think that is pretty good odds and will really make a difference," said Rep. Victoria Doudera, a Camden Democrat who co-chairs the Legislature's Gun Safety Caucus.

Doudera said gun safety was not a popular topic among her colleagues when she first arrived at the State House six years ago. But she's noticed a gradual, steady change as concerns grew about mass shootings across the country — and as suicide became part of the debate. Nearly 90% of gun deaths in Maine in 2021 were suicides.

And then last October, just six months after a quadruple homicide in Bowdoin, a gunman killed 18 people in Lewiston in the worst mass shooting in Maine history. 

"You know those two events, and especially Lewiston, really helped to push people who were on the fence to say, you know, 'Enough is enough. Maine is not immune to the gun violence that is happening everywhere else. And something needs to be done.'" Doudera said.

One gun owners' rights advocate called the just-ended session a "mixed bag," however.

David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine, said his organization is urging Mills to veto the 72-hour waiting period and the ban on bump stocks.

But Trahan was pleased a so-called "red flag" went nowhere. Trahan had worked with Mills to change Maine's yellow flag gun confiscation law to make it easier for police to take a potentially dangerous person into "protective custody." The independent commission investigating the Lewiston shooting has faulted police for not utilizing the yellow flag law to attempt to take away the shooter's guns in the weeks and months before the Oct. 25 incident.

"The governor's approach to that legislation was inclusive," said Trahan, who was part of the group that negotiated with Mills five years ago to develop the "yellow flag" law. "She allowed all interested parties to weigh in and have semi-input into the final product. That's how the Legislature is supposed to work."

For his part, Trahan doesn't draw a straight line between the tragedy in Lewiston and last week's votes.

"I think this was more driven by out-of-state groups," Trahan said. "You know, Michael Bloomberg goes around the country after every mass shooting and promotes four or five of his policies that he is promoting nationally. And that's what happens here."

The national players on both sides of the gun issue were, indeed, active in Augusta this legislative session.

Local lobbyists for the National Rifle Association maintained a constant presence at the State House. Everytown for Gun Safety, which is former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's gun control group, turned out its local supporters for public hearings, press conferences and to lobby lawmakers in the hallways.

Everytown's legal counsel, Olivia Li, said it was "extremely significant" that Maine lawmakers voted to expand background checks and impose a waiting period. But Li said she was most impressed that the debate focused not just on mass shootings but also on suicide prevention and expanding mental health services.

"It's always our goal that lawmakers are thinking about gun safety and violence prevention every day of every session and not just reacting to tragedy," Li said. "And so I personally feel a lot of promise in the way things turned out this session. And I'm hoping this changes momentum in the future."

The votes on all of the gun bills were close.

The 72-hour waiting period passed both chambers by only a single vote several times. Trahan and other gun owners' rights advocates are accusing Democrats of using a parliamentary maneuver to achieve that result because two Democrats who were not in the chamber last Wednesday for personal reasons were allowed to "pair" their votes in support of the bill to two Democrats who were opposed.

Yet even a one-vote margin represents a shift because, just last year, that same issue fell four votes short in the House and 13 votes short in the Senate.

Republicans remained steadfastly opposed. But a handful of Democrats shifted — Senate President Troy Jackson among them.

"You know, I think October 25th changed a lot of people's mindsets," Jackson, D-Allagash said. 

Jackson's district is about as rural as they come, encompassing a swath of Aroostook County so large that it could swallow the state of Rhode Island several times over. He previously opposed the 72-hour waiting period and expanded background checks. But Jackson said he felt something needed to happen after Lewiston.

"I don't think we've done everything that we should have," he said. Jackson also wanted additional money to increase police patrols in rural Maine. "But we certainly have done some things that hopefully could make a difference in the future. But nothing brings back those 18 people and certainly nothing brings back or gets rid of the pain and anguish that people are going to feel."

Mills has until next week to sign, veto or allow the bills to become law without her signature.

A former attorney general and state lawmaker from western Maine, Mills plans to sign her bill expanding background checks to advertised private gun sales and tweaking Maine's yellow flag law. But a spokesman for her office said the governor will "review and consider" the bills establishing a 72-hour waiting period and banning rapid-fire modification devices.